The former Greyhound service terminal at Park Avenue and Centre Street is a good site for the exhibit of contemporary Soviet photography that opened there yesterday. It's a hulk of a building, sprawling and unused, but with potential for new life if approached with creativity.
"Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the USSR" is a sprawling show of more than 200 photos by 45 artists whose work is done over a vast area from Leningrad to Siberia. The styles represented are a melange from the traditional to the avant garde. Some of it is quite successful, some less so. Some of the photographers turn away from society to deal with aesthetic and/or personal matters, while others approach social and political issues.
In a way, though, all of this work speaks of a society with unrealized potential, groping toward the future rather than languishing in fatigue and defeat. It isn't a pretty show, but it exudes an eagerness that carries it over its own imperfections.
Curated by Joseph Walker, Christopher Ursitti and Paul McGinniss (after their book of the same title) and by Geroge Ciscle of the Museum for Contemporary Arts (the Baltimore "museum without walls" which is presenting it in the temporary space) the show follows the book's organization largely by centers of photographic activity: Leningrad, Moscow, Minsk and independents. This makes a certain degree of sense, but it might have been more enlightening for Western viewers had it been organized around the styles in which the photographers work.
For we have a considerable range. There are those such as Ludmila Ivanova, whose series "The Cathedral" records a traditional activity in a straightforward and traditional way. There are those who document aspects of Soviet life, including its hardships and frustrations, such as Alexander Ignatjev in "An Office Between Tenants" or Yury Matveev's series on ration stamps ("Sour Cream," "Sugar"). There are photographers whose work parallels some of the experimental photography of recent years in the West, such as hand-coloring and other manipulation of the photograph, appropriation of earlier materials, combination photography and writing.
But in the end probably what the Western viewer will take away from this show is what these photographers are saying about their society, however various the interpretations may be. Whether or not Boris Mikhailov's photo from the series "SOTS--Art," of two people wearing gas masks in front of a picture of Lenin, was originally meant as a comment on Lenin, it will surely be taken that way by Western viewers. Galina Moskaleva's "Elections" series of blue-toned photographs with gold highlights makes elections look thoroughly unreal.
A more tightly focused show, that didn't include so much, might have been more manageable; but this one's sprawl has its own, in a way exhilarating, effect.
What: Contemporary Soviet photography, presented by the Museum for Contemporary Arts.
Where: The former Greyhound service terminal at Park Avenue and Centre Street.
When: Noon to 6 p.m. daily through June 21.